The switch from the peak of the National Hunt calendar to the flat turf season in early Spring can be a brutal change of direction for punters looking to bet on horse racing. From long slogs in the mud featuring horses with form books longer than War and Peace to unraced two year olds sprinting in blink and you miss it 5f cavalry charges it can be a bit disorienting.
What’s perhaps most striking about the flat turf season is how young the horses are in comparison to jumps or even the all weather. The five Classics are all restricted to three-year olds and many of the big races are contested by two-year olds with barely any form between them.
This in practise means it’s a game of limited information with smart bettors needing to keep an open mind and a real focus to find the value. Luckily there are some simple strategies to extract the most value from the flat and if you stick to the following seven golden rules you won’t go too far wrong. So let’s start at the beginning…
1. Know your races
It may sound simple, but it bears repeating: understand the type of race you are betting on. There is huge variety in the flat racing calendar but the two most important distinctions are handicap and non-handicap racing and sprints and middle distance races. In short it pays to specialise and focus your study on certain race types.
Sprints over 5f and 6f are all about speed and can also be a great place to specialise as there are very few hiding places here. While it’s incorrect to say there is no tactical element to sprint racing, in fact there can be a great deal, the races are generally run at a true pace and speed ratings, official ratings and form can be a strong guide here.
Handicap races make up roughly half those run and can favour a more “traditional” approach to finding good value bets of simply studying the form, looking for favoured courses and trainers that have been clever with the handicapper. Generally these races will feature more “exposed” horses where form and ability is broadly known. They are another great race type to focus on.
Non-handicap races are often the highest profile events and attract the most betting action but can be some of the hardest puzzles to solve. Here you are really looking for an extra edge and you need to look at some of the other factors below.
2. Know your trainers
We won’t waste too much time on this, but it’s a fact that “stable form” can be a huge factor in all forms of racing, and not least on the flat where it’s vital trainers have horses in absolute peak condition for their races. As such it can pay dividends to focus on finding trainers who seem to be on form and avoid those who can’t seem to buy a winner.
You can quickly check the form of trainers at a number of sites including Racing Post and Sportinglife although Sky Sports table is very easy to use. You can also get a detailed summary at sites like Flat Stats here. What you are looking for is not just how a trainer is performing, but how his or her form is changing over the course of the season.
Some trainers will also have favoured courses, for a variety of reasons. And it can be worthwhile trying to analyse form through sites like GeeGeez to drill down into more detail on performance by course. What you are looking for mostly are trainers who appear to aim their horses at certain tracks, but you do run the risk of reducing the sample size of the data to such an extent that it becomes fairly meaningless.
Use trainer form in combination with other factors to try and develop your own records and test the data before using it to bet with. In general be careful of placing too much faith in these statistics, however, as form can change very quickly and it’s at best a very crude gauge of a horse’s chances in any individual race.
Stable form is best used to sense check your thoughts or perhaps to find value from traditionally strong stables that appear to be going through a run of bad luck. But don’t rely on it too heavily or it can be a costly mistake.
3. Throw away the form book
Form study is a big part of winning at all types of racing, but if you focus solely on the form book with flat turf racing you may struggle. With so few runs and so many unexposed horses the form guide can be somewhat deceptive to the inexperienced flat bettor.
That’s not to say you won’t find 8-year olds with years of form under their belts in some of the handicaps but for 2 and 3-year-olds the form guide is really only a part of the picture. What you need is to see the races with your own eyes.
In short you are far better off seeking out the races online and watching them for yourself. If you rely on post-race write-ups for your analysis you will miss a huge number of factors that could make all the difference to your assessment. And unlike the national hunt season you don’t need to plough through years of races each lasting 5 minutes or more, it could be as little as half a dozen minute long sprints.
Race replays can be found easily on Attheraces, Sportinglife and Racing UK. There is no better way to get an understanding of true ability than closely watching every furlong of a race and getting behind the tactics to see what the form guides can’t tell you.
Focus on the first few furlongs as much as the last, and keep an eye on how the horse was ridden and how it responded to conditions and tactics in the race. You will learn a lot in a minute or two, and a lot more than you’d learn from reading the form.
4. It’s all about speed
This can be a contentious topic, but you really should have an understanding and appreciation for speed ratings if you ever want to be a winning bettor on the flat. Timeform are the king here, but other flavours are available if they are not to your taste. The key as with every factor here is not to place an overreliance on them.
Speed ratings are exactly what they suggest. They are ratings showing the raw speed of the horse with the higher the better and have formed the basis for many a successful bettors strategy in the past. They are more of a commodity these days and can be found in various places such as Attheraces and more professionally focused tools like Proform, but are still very powerful if used correctly.
The most simple way to use them is find the horse with the top speed rating in a race and bet on it. But that’s not a viable long-term strategy due to the vagaries of courses, form, going and other factors that can have a bearing on the outcome. One way is to compare recent ratings for the same horse to see if there is a pattern or to find out if it performs better at certain courses or in certain conditions.
Speed ratings can be a very useful part of the armoury, but you really need to know a) how it relates to other key factors and b) how likely it is to be replicated in the race you are analysing.
We’d advise you to use them as a guide at first and try a subscription to one of the more popular sites before diving in with both feet.
5. Bet the favourite (sometimes)
With flat races run over true pace there is no getting away from the fact that short priced horses will tend to dominate, and there can be a lot of value in betting the favourite. But you have to be really careful about choosing your moments. Generally backing the jolly blind will lead to a negative return on investment over the course of the season, and a more careful approach is needed.
What you need to do is refine by course, race type and rating. In non-handicap races with more exposed horses you will often find winners coming from the top of the betting and certainly at many tracks the favourites with the top rating have a habit of coming good. For example you may find at Asoct, favourites with rating above 90 look to be profitable over the long-term.
You can then test the theory with a dry run before refining it further. You can add in as many other factors as you like, but this will tend to reduce your sample size down to a less reliable mark. Sites like Flat Stats have a wealth of information on favourites and if you’re happy to stump up a few quid you can save yourself hours of work. But however you do it make sure you have good data to work from.
As with all aspects of betting make sure your decisions are made independently of each other. Systems are a route to ruin. Use your knowledge of favourite records to make an informed decision and not just a crutch when you don’t know what to be on.
6. Lay the favourite (sometimes)
Flat racing on the turf offers few hiding places, so the temptation is to think it would produce more “honest” favourites than its jumps counterpart but this is not always the case. And in fact it can be a very profitable strategy to look to lay the favourite in a large number of races particularly those at a lower grade where little is known of the principles.
A glance at some stats sites will show you the fate of favourites and it can pay to focus on specific grades of racing here when refining your system. False favourites or over backed favourites can be common in flat racing on the turf where information is at a premium and there is relatively little form data compared to other forms of racing.
This can also apply to the higher profile races where the public money will latch on to a hype horse or one with an in-form jockey or trainer behind it that otherwise hasn’t done a great deal to deserve its short-price. It’s a reasonable rule of thumb to always look for reasons to oppose short-price favourites on the flat and if you do some homework you can find some very attractive laying options.
An alternative strategy can be to dutch some alternative selections. It’s often possible to rule out some total no-hopers and pick out 3-4 horses that you would happily oppose the favourite with. Check out our guide to dutching to learn more. But as always be very careful about applying the lay the fav rule too frequently.
Do some research and focus on specific types and grades of race, specific courses and specific trainers. But beyond this remember to judge each race on its own merits. Even a solid favourite can become too short and become value to oppose if the public really gets behind it so as always keep flexible in your approach to finding value.
7. Are you biased?
Draw biases are something you will hear discussed a lot during the flat turf season, and it’s our final area to focus on. No two UK courses are alike and each has its own idiosyncrasies and as such the starting position can sometimes have a big bearing on the end result. For example at Chester and Beverley there is a large bias towards horses drawn low on the sprint courses.
Sites likes Draw Bias have very detailed analysis of all the UK tracks and information on the bias present at different race lengths. But the information should almost always be taken with a pinch of salt. Firstly any recognised draw bias will be built into the odds (it’s information the odds makers are well aware of) and secondly no bias is significant enough on its own to guarantee success.
But draw biases are worth bearing in mind for a couple of reasons. First and foremost you should know what the market knows. If a horse appears too short or too long to you then it could be due to a draw bias factored in. Secondly there can still be short-term patterns you can look to follow. Keep a close eye on recent results at courses known to exhibit a bias and see if you can spot short-term trends.
As with every other factor on this list you should use draw bias as part of your attempt to find the overall picture rather than a strategy to picking the winner. Winning on the flat is not as hard as some may make out, but it can be a trappy and tricky affair if you get fooled into thinking it’s as simple as laying the favourite or backing the horse in stall 1 every time.